REPORT A PROBLEM
The last 90 minutes featured a parade of people into and out of my office -- Mr. Salmin, Ms. Robinson, Mr. Modry, Mrs. Montgomery, now Audrey and her sister Olivia, returning somebody else’s book, found in one of their lockers upon opening it on the fourth day of school -- and it’s been harder to find time for 100 words than I anticipated. I wouldn’t write here at all except I’m racing home to grab the daughter and a couple lawn chairs and drive three hours to hear James McMurtry sing “Choctaw Bingo” in a seaside park and have us a time.
A few weeks back I was lying awake at 3 AM listening to Enya and missing the two freshman roommates I’d hated so much I moved out at the term break, one month after the opening of the Berlin Wall. My longing for my window’s obstructed vantage out across the rooftops toward the blinking CHA project towers under a two-tone night sky, magenta on black, made my chest hurt. I felt hopelessly far from humid daybreaks on the empty el.
This is not the incredible life I imagined then; it’s the one I was overlooking when I was imagining another.
In my earliest memory of discontent with the shape of my body, I’m eight years old, flying in the passenger seat of my parents’ Cessna in a tight beige polo shirt with thin black rugby stripes. My dad has the stick. As we bounce out over the Champlain Islands a few thousand feet off the deck, he says, “You need to lose some weight.”
I protest, but he pursues his point: “Your belly is getting big, I can see it.”
Looking down, so can I. It makes little difference that I see his, too, wrapped in permanent pressed green plaid.
Smoove B in Vermont:
Baby, come to Vermont right this instant. We will go apple picking. I will use the finest stepstool to get you the most glossiest succulent apples off the best trees in the damn orchard. At home, I will cook down those apples real slow. It will become smooth and brown, like your skin. My kitchen is clean; I use a electric mop. Also, we will do the corn maze and get it on out in the corn. Damn. In conclusion, we will go fruit picking, make applesauce, and freak among the agriculture crops. Come to Vermont.
I suppose it’s natural to think sometimes of the other women with whom I might have made a life. P, B, J -- it’s a short list. On occasions when speculative revisionist what-iffing starts getting the better of me, though, I consider the mothers-in-law not taken. If our married reality weren’t enough to set everything right in my mind, that certainly would be. The sausage gravy I’m simmering this afternoon in O’s kitchen -- I’d have been cooking for an alcoholic French Canadian farmwife, a section-8 renter in Poughkeepsie, or for Lady Catherine De Bourgh in her final step down from Rosings.
Once again I’ve got the organ chorales churning, the sandalwood incense smoking, the desktop clear, the books-and-papers wreckage of the last Big Thing put away, and an ominous manic sweat souring my forehead.
I’m cracking open a new Project, and the danger is electric.
There ought to be a NOAA alert, something preceded on the radio by a universal alarm tone so my wife will take note:
NWS Doppler radar indicates imminent severe strangeness -- disturbances! -- for
… Maple and Main …
PRECAUTIONARY / PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS ...
FOR YOUR PROTECTION MOVE TO AN INTERIOR ROOM ON THE LOWEST FLOOR OF YOUR MARRIAGE.
I signed up for “North Country Chorus” because it’s nearby.
It’s just five blocks from this moth-eaten end of our threadbare village, to the buckle in its Victorian industrial philanthropist tophat, an expensive arts complex snuggled among the old private prep school’s pedicured paths.
We won’t be singing Jingle Bells.
It’s miles of contrapuntal Latin, eight parts in a furious shrapnel of notation as though blasted onto the page out the bell end of a medieval murdering piece.
Last time I sang anything I couldn’t accompany myself on a banjo, it was 1989.
Gloria in excelsis Deo -- I’m in trouble.
There is a life where you come home from respectable professional work, talk warmly with your functionally aspirational family, put on Haydn and read literature that matters. Maybe drink whiskey.
This looked a short hop away at 20: I could smell the leather armchair, feel the elbow patches on the cardigan, hear the rippling strings and trumpets. I began acquiring the books.
So what happened?
Some recitations require more than 100 words.
Today, though, I turn 45. Amazing transformation -- it’s suddenly all like I imagined. I may need to find a roll-top desk, a gold letter-opener, and an Irish setter.
I would like it if I had something pithy to say today.
I could put it on Facebook with settings turned to “public.”
Certain people I no longer know but about whom I sometimes think, and in whose thoughts I’d hope to occasionally appear, might wander by eventually and be reassured:
“Yes,” they’d confirm. “The light is still on. He attends mindfully to theology and geometry.
are in harmonious balance, and
remains a sacred devotional ideal.”
But some days I just don’t. I listen, and the only voice I hear is a faint pyloric rumble.
A professor whose judgment I trust states, “at least half of all writing concerns love and loss.”
Nice to think there’s any that doesn’t.
I’ve been working on some today:
The brilliant, beautiful children of accomplished geniuses have a tough time.
Some big advantages, sure, but lots to live up to. Bunch of tall expectations, and not much slack.
Hence we must root for them: hope they dust off and rally again when down, pray they really are flourishing when they look like they might be.
All the rest of us need encouragement too, but that doesn’t mean they don’t.
A professor I quoted just yesterday states, “at least half of all writing concerns love and loss.”
This implies some does not, but I can’t compose that kind today:
The unreasonably happy Belarusian poet who introduced me to Vonnegut and Nemerov flew a decommissioned Missouri state police cruiser.
Out on Lakeshore Drive with a backseat full of cheerfully unsuspecting people, he’d accelerate toward the 47th Street overpass at around 80 and burst off it like a skylark.
In a winter that taught me all about flight, free falls, fishtails, and uncontrolled slides, his were surely the most ecstatic.
When you look up, you’ve lived enough that where before you only had a childhood,
now you have
What’s frozen there cooperates helpfully -- remaining motionless,
like it never did the first time:
unconscious of your gaze
as you work out what is meant
by certain fascinating sequences.
Some resolve beneath this scrutiny;
others still mystify despite mass spectrometry, core sampling,
you’ve even tried dowsing.
You understand this much:
from any honest angle,
the part you played
was not always not the hero’s.
And yet, this story is yours.
To whom do you dare tell it?
On the one hand, you want to be worried:
with all this thinking about times gone by,
how much of today are you missing?
Which of your children’s ephemeral glories?
What dewy sparkle of your wife’s cheerful care?
How many tones in the inexorable creep
of August’s last lush greens
to September’s crisp golds,
and then the browns,
beneath the sky’s patient brazen dome?
But if past and present serve to predict, you’ve little to worry about:
Twenty years from now you’ll get to live today,
and today --
as many times as it takes to get it right.
Kephart asks what color my life is.
It’s like certain eccentric plaid suitcases,
incongruous otter-belly heather mohair sweaters,
ringed with the gray of a sleepless December dawn on Kimbark Avenue,
splashed with the dregs of a sixth breakfast stout.
There’s an angry raw-steak hue
like deep incisions in an arm,
the marmalade brown of the prescription bottle,
and the final inch of artichoke piss vetch yellow Jose Cuervo.
Blue for CPD duty dress.
Black for the patrol jackets and guns.
Or it’s the bottomless aquamarine of my grandmother’s eyes
gazing from my daughter’s face -- unsparing, implacable as the sphinx.
This is a lonely place to seek connection.
Like hollering down a hole -- hello? Anybody there?
Or maybe I’m at the bottom, yelling up.
Seven billion people, and every one of them doing something that isn’t reading this, save but for six or eight of them, maybe, sooner or later. And on the odd chance some scribble I leave here were to close a circuit somehow for even one of them --
Yes! That’s just how it has been for me, too, all along! What a relief to know I’m not alone in feeling this way!
-- how would I ever know?
All right, Kephart. Now for the smells.
Gas station sausage and egg on a bagel.
Low-output fluorescents (they smell) and dry erase markers.
Nine months’ dust swept over institutional floor polish.
Some fake fruit smelling crap someone sprayed out by the sophomore lockers.
The sour chemical sweat of sixth period, Thursday, on four hours’ sleep.
Coffee. French press, instant, scorched Bunn-omatic: any kind that’s black.
Ninety-one pages to grade by tomorrow.
The migraine (yes, it smells) behind my right eye.
The faulty GRE registration interface (it stinks).
City snow falling in the lamp light when you’ve written your last final.
For Michelle in Indiana, having vampire trouble:
The narcissistic undead in post-postmodern America are hard to identify with certainty and harder to leave with conviction; killing them is completely out of the question. Certain elements of their character are delicious beyond what we see in their 100% human counterparts, making their attentions difficult to resist. What’s needed is a kind of cauterization: jettison all vestiges, reminders, items, and so on. Delete and block all contacts. Yet you can’t burn out memories with a hot iron. Ditching the letters and photos just makes it
each time you drive past.
Our decade as landlords:
We rented to half the LSC women’s basketball team. Their boyfriends practiced archery indoors, and their construction boots wrecked the carpet. Next was a contractor who replaced sagging plaster and ancient wallpaper with good drywall against rent. The following people made it into a shooting gallery. An overdosed Ohio runaway got transported from here to the hospital. After that, the couple with the medical permit for 11 plants got busted with 76 mature sensemilla Xmas trees under lights. Our final tenant did massages with happy endings. The pipes froze when she was in Puerto Rico.
Crime and Punishment
The conclusion is inescapable: Luzhin does not just disappear; Svidrigailov kills him.
Raskolnikov threatens murder if he keeps bothering his sister; Arkady Ivanovich counters:
we are birds of a feather, and you should rather fear me.
Later, showing off, he counts five percent bond notes just like those Luzhin earlier flaunted for Lebezhiatnikov. The sum is suddenly much larger than the inheritance from Marfa Petrovna with which he’d already importuned Dounia.
With this fortune he rescues the novel’s meekest, most pitiable characters from further degradation and ruin, answering their devout prayers
and proving God’s ways mysterious indeed.
August, 2002, Lake Elinor, 11,200’.
Pages from Secor describe bears who,
smelling mountaineers’ tunafish,
climb the vertical mile from forested canyon bottoms.
Dozing on starlit granite, food bag suspended
above a stony defile,
I don’t know that midday tomorrow, having aborted an ill-advised
solo on Mount Sill’s east couloir,
I will step down onto a boulder like a Volkswagen,
causing it to roll.
I will pitch a full story face-first onto the next blocks below,
leaving cheekbone, hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, and chest torn,
bruised, and aching for weeks -- but no bones broken.
It’ll be a long walk out.
I guess what I want if I’m going
to teach English and run a school library
is some way to transcend the part of the job
that’s basically a sham. So much of it is,
really: the kids pretend to learn, we pretend
to teach them, the community pretends
to believe it so long as we contain costs
(if not, what then?) and in our compromised,
narrow little ways most participants
get something they want.
It can be so empty
that certain days your soul might burst
like a little green balloon
in the pitiless vacuum of space.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide ...
- Shakespeare, Henry V
Kids came today in distress vis-à-vis
the deadline for the paper they hadn’t started.
Conversations went like this:
How long can you spend
between now and tomorrow at three?
What sections do you have to compose?
That’s how long per segment, allowing breaks
to walk the dog, brew tea, be present in your family?
Alright then: run a timer.
Write savagely in those intervals.
Bring that, not excuses, tomorrow.
Lumps and all,
this will be nearer the excellence you imagine,
than the work you sheepishly show up lacking.
There are sessions behind the keyboard when
finding something worth saying is like snorkeling
in an ocean of congealed minestrone soup
feeling for my lost wedding ring with dive gloves on.
It’s doubly frustrating today, since only a few hours ago
on my commute I was barely able to follow a fairly
straightforward lecture on existentialism
through the Brownian frenzy of free associations
that went ricocheting so effortlessly
off nearly every statement the professor made.
Aesthetic life, ethical life, religious life --
I had some ideas about all that.
Where are they now?
Somewhere, water is dripping off a distant pipe.
My activist friend suggests Bernie people back
Green candidate Jill Stein. She cannot support
HRC or the Democrats on account of many moral
failures. One attractive view says what's wrong
is always wrong, and projected outcomes should
have no part in ethical decision making. I admire
willingness to take absolute personal responsibility
for what’s right, up to and including drinking
the hemlock when it comes to that.
Such obvious differences in likely
suffering-to-happiness ratios for so many
are at stake, though. I run up against
the potential impact of this principled rigidity
on others, and it gives me pause.
Cole and Oak, 1997:
A ground-floor apartment,
formerly a corner bodega, with Jeremy.
Runaways slept in the chamfered entry
While huge slugs slid under the kitchen door
and across the linoleum. I left environmental
canvassing to run orders in the PSE options pit.
The atmosphere was Satanic, and in March
I returned to classroom work, now as
1:1 behavior support. I resumed running,
taught summer writing workshops,
and enlisted my banjo as a social can-opener,
playing weekly in one of the units upstairs
with an eclectic group of casual musicians,
one of whom would introduce me to my wife.
Cole & Oak, July, 1998:
Kelly and I had been together since March.
We entered the apartment one sunny afternoon.
The cat was hiding. In Jeremy’s quarters
something sounded like rain. Something
everywhere smelled like sewage. The new
replaced following the flooding that rolled in
off the clogged corner storm drain in January --
was sodden dark beyond the sidewalk salvaged
sectional sofa. We cracked the bedroom door
to find the ceiling gagging, the ruptured main
retching a nauseous cascade of watery filth
over everything my friend owned.
The twin centers of the stream
targeted his computer and his bed.
More than 2,400 years ago, Athenians inquired
whether it’s possible to teach or learn
how to be good. This still-unsettled debate
has attracted my attention since before
my fifteenth birthday. Has a daily dive
into the ongoing dialogue’s depths ever seemed
more essential to an authentic life than it does
I talk with scores of people and follow
dozens of sources of news and commentary,
yet while humanity’s last, best chances
appear to be sliding through our grasp
like sand, I haven’t heard the word “virtue”
spoken aloud all year. Invited with the right
questions, would it come?
The best party I remember:
It unfolded on Jim and Sharon’s deck
overlooking the Buckeye Creek redwoods
the last day of school, 1996. We had voices,
guitars, marimba, harmonica, banjo and
standup bass. When the kindergarten teacher’s
killer weed circulated, things slowed down,
but only a touch. Somebody took the meat
off the grill, and it was cold and the sun was down
before we remembered to eat.
Things were about to stay hard --
chronic bronchitis, rough breakup, lousy jobs,
shithole apartment, seedy neighborhood, failing car,
money worries and loneliness --
but all I knew that day was sunshine and harmony.
Parsing Sartre’s explanation of friendship,
Robert Solomon posits that we choose friends
for their willingness to corroborate
the sense we wish to maintain of ourselves,
and they maintain their friendships with us
on the basis of the same. Sounds sensible
until I think of my friends, and of who
they seem to be telling me I am. Who is that guy,
And why does he need their confirmation?
He raises his daughter and son.
Some days he goes fishing.
He reads novels with breakfast.
He plays his banjo. Evenings, he types.
They help him see what, exactly?
A dozen pages from the end of
Having slogged through it in high school,
and knowing its esteemed place
as a canonical classic, I reread it
in the same dutiful spirit as one approaches bran flakes.
It is entirely unfamiliar -- did I ever read this book? --
and utterly demented. The finale
seems to be swerving toward an at-long-last
sort-of-happy ending, but the avoidable miseries
and consciously elected depravities,
and the grinding duration of both,
so dwarf any redemptions possible
at this late hour, that I can only ask:
who was Emily Brontë,
and what was wrong with her?
The Tip Jar